Harriet Tubman to Become Face of the $20 Bill: A Fitting Tribute

This past Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that Harriet Tubman would adorn the $20 bill, bumping former U.S. President Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill. Tubman will be the first woman represented on paper currency since Martha Washington’s portrait briefly graced the $1 silver certificate in the late 1800s. The change will come into effect in 2020 – a nod to the centennial of the 19th Amendment establishing women’s suffrage –and comes after a long outsourcing effort by Lew to decide what women from history would be on the $10 bill.

Courtesy: Business Insider
Courtesy: Business Insider

Support for Alexander Hamilton’s continued place on the $10 note derailed this effort, but Andrew Jackson’s place in history recently coming under fire due to a heightened focus over his record of forcibly relocating Native Americans, supporting slavery and opposing paper money left him vulnerable to being replaced. On why Harriet Tubman was the right choice, Lew said she “struck a chord with people in all parts of the country, of all ages.”

The change headlines a slew of minor tweaks. On the back of the $10 note, a picture of the Treasury Building will be replaced with a depiction of a 1913 march in support of women’s suffrage as well as portraits of Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony. On the back of the $5 bill, the Lincoln memorial will remain but instead be depicted as a backdrop for the 1939 performance of African-American opera star Marian Anderson.

Placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill does more to highlight the race and gender-based clashes that have defined this century than it does to alter their calculus. This is more than just an aesthetic tweak, though. An entire generation of young people seeing prominent abolitionists and women’s suffragists on their currency carries with it incalculable positives. This, amongst the gray area incumbent upon historical analysis, is tacit approval of what they stood for.

The support for Tubman has been virtually universal – save for Ben Carson’s quip – and it is not hard to see why. A slave, prominent abolitionist, and Union spy during the American Civil War, Tubman represents the best of the American ideal. Her best and most important work as a conductor of the Underground Railroad came amidst the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, where there were lofty punishments or anybody found aiding a slave’s escape. She was also an active proponent of women’s suffrage, working alongside Susan B. Anthony and others. Despite the horrors of her life, with every reason to be resentful, she still served the Union during the Civil War, and was buried with military honors in New York’s Fort Hill Cemetery.

Tubman fit the bill as somebody who staved off adversity, but weathered the storm with tremendous resolve and success. During her eight years of bringing slaves and slave families to and from safe houses, she claims to have “never lost a passenger” aboard the proverbial Railroad. While her representation on the $20 bill does not come close to canonizing her lasting impact, it is a tremendous first step.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here